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Would Tom Brady have remained Patriots starter if no tuck rule called?

/ by Jake Levin
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According to Bill Belichick, the "Tuck Rule" was much ado about nothing.

The New England Patriots head coach said again during Sunday's airing of ESPN's Tuck Rule 30 for 30 documentary that he knew as the play unfolded he knew what was going on.

"I knew that play," Belichick said. "That was the rule."

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But what if referee Walt Coleman hadn't been assigned to the Patriots' divisional round game against the Oakland Raiders that snowy night 20 years ago, and the play had been open to the interpretation of another official? 

Would Belichick have still stuck with Tom Brady heading into the 2002 season? Brady himself seems to think no.

"I'm probably the backup QB going into 2002," Brady said in the film. "I'm not the starter if we lose that game."

Brady, 24 at the time, envisioned himself as backup all over again to Drew Bledsoe, who turned 30 shortly after the Patriots did in fact beat the Raiders, as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Rams en route to their first Super Bowl title.

That feels extremely unlikely, tuck rule or no.

True, Bledsoe would have one of the best seasons of his career in 2002 -- making a Pro Bowl for the Buffalo Bills, where the Patriots sent him in exchange for a 2003 first-round draft pick that would eventually become Ty Warren. 

Bledsoe wasn't long for Buffalo, however, after the Bills drafted J.P. Losman in the first round in 2004. He'd last two more seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, where he was replaced by Tony Romo midway through the 2006 season and retired at age 35, with a record of 35-35 away from Foxboro.

 

Even with the benefit of hindsight, there's almost no scenario in which going back to Bledsoe made sense for the Patriots. Surely, no one could tell the Patriots were in possession of the greatest quarterback in NFL history at the time, but Brady's numbers as a first-year starter in 2001 are better than you remember.

Over 14 starts in relief of Bledsoe, Brady completed 63.9 percent of his passes, fourth in the NFL in 2001, and registered an 86.0 passer rating, sixth in the league. Both of those numbers seem pedestrian by today's standards --they would have been 24th and 25th, respectively, in 2021 -- but for the era, Brady was a breath of fresh air for an offense which had been in decline for several years under Bledsoe.

Given how Belichick approached the quarterback position years later, first by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014 after Brady had slipped ever so slightly the year prior and then by allowing Brady to leave following the 2019 season -- after a dip which, it turned out, was more due to personnel around Brady -- returning to Bledsoe in 2002 was never in the cards.

Brady always seems to be his own toughest critic, though one play from one game was never going to derail him from emerging as New England's franchise quarterback. 

There is one prominent figure who believes that one play was the catalyst for the Patriots' dynasty though: